All last week, the bad news about climate change tore through science circles like a twister through Kansas.
First, the International Energy Association (IEA) reported that global greenhouse gas emissions hit record highs in 2010, threatening to catapult Earth over the 2 degree Celsius temperature rise that, scientists predict, will lead to cataclysmic changes.
Already we’re up about one degree – attributed to anthropogenic causes.
Which we're seeing already. Russia and Pakistan last year. Manitoba and Mississippi this year.
Says meteorologist Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State, “There is good reason to believe that, with as much as an additional 1C or so warming, we might set in motion the irreversible collapse of the continental ice sheets. Their eventual melting would lead to more than 20 feet of global sea level rise--by any assessment, a catastrophic outcome.”
And none of that counts what is already in the system – i.e. those emissions that we haven’t really measured or felt the effects of yet.
“We” being the operative word.
It’s widely acknowledged that some of the worst polluters – including Canada and the U.S. – will be able weather the coming storms for a lot longer than those wretched millions living in low-lying coastal areas, in rapidly-drying up parts of Africa, South America and Asia and every place where the cost of food takes up the largest chunk of the household budget.
The IEA’s numbers were reinforced Tuesday when the US government’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory announced that 2011 world green house gas emissions were climbing even higher than last year.
Canada, on a per capita basis, has much to answer for. Population and economic growth, oil and gas exports and our love of light trucks have been among the key drivers of our rising emissions. Then there's Alberta oil sands mining which, according to Environment Canada, spews more greenhouse gases than all the cars on our roads combined.
“Unfortunately, far too many are in denial and political action is at a standstill,’’ observes Kevin Trenberth, Distinguished Senior Scientist at the Boulder, Colorado-based National Center for Atmospheric Research. “Once the problem is so obvious to everyone, it is far far too late to do anything about it.”
Simply put, although there is some political disagreement, the general scientific consensus is that, in order to head off mass extinctions, huge migrations of climate refugees and, yes, even global warring, carbon dioxide in the air should be cut back to 350 parts per million (ppm) from the current 390 ppm (or so).
That sense of urgency is why many in scientific circles are advocating non-violent civil disobedience (NVCD) to shake up governments, industry and media.
Even climate change superstar Al Gore has called for NVCD, which involves breaking the law to protest or to call attention to laws or government policies perceived to be unjust.
Three years ago, he said in a speech to the Clinton Global Initiative, "I believe we have reached the stage where it is time for civil disobedience to prevent the construction of new coal plants that do not have carbon capture and sequestration.”
Enough with the greenwishywashing, more and more scientists are saying.
Well-known American environmentalist and activist Bill McKibben founded the grass-roots group 350.org, which attempts to get people all over the world agitating for laws, regulations and policy aimed at reducing GHG (greenhouse gas emissions) reductions.
“We need to do (civil disobedience) on a mass scale," McKibben, author of many books including Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, tells me. “We need to do it in a way that makes one thing clear to all onlookers: in this fight, we are the conservatives. The radicals are the people who want to alter the composition of the atmosphere.”
The idea is spreading.
“Non-violent civil disobedience is justified when there is a history of long-standing harm or violation of people's fundamental rights; when legal and policy means have failed to reduce the harms and violations; and when there is little time remaining to address the problems,” University of New England professor John Lemons and Penn State’s Donald Brown wrote in last month’s Journal of Science and Environmental Politics.
“Simply put, people do not have the right to harm others who have not given their consent to be harmed, and this is exactly what the USA and other countries continue to do,” Lemons told me.
(For more on the theories of justice and civil disobedience, read this. And then read this, the case of one US activist who faces a possible 10 year sentence and up to $750K in fines, even though he never hurt a fly.)
Environmental activists have long engaged in civil disobedience.
Greenpeace, to name one group, has long specialized in it.
In 2009, 20 activists were arrested after they scaled Parliament’s west block, covered it with banners demanding government action on climate change.
Last week, two members camped out in an 'Arctic survival pod' suspended from an oil rig off the coast of Greenland, in an effort to stop a Scottish oil firm from drilling. The activists demand to know how Cairn Energy would cope with a BP Deepwater Horizon-style disaster if something goes wrong in pristine Arctic waters.
Noted Australian climate advocate Clive Hamilton (Affluenza: When Too Much is Not Enough, Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist The Truth About Climate Change) insists that the moral obligation to act now trumps obedience to the law.
“Those who engage in civil disobedience are usually the most law-abiding citizens—those
who have most regard for the social interest and the keenest understanding of the democratic process,” he emails from Cambridge where he is a visiting professor at Oxford.
Civil disobedience has a long and proud tradition, of course. It helped bring about civil rights in the US, end the Vietnam war, and kept loggers out of BC’s Clayoquot Sound. African-Americans boycotted bus lines and defiantly drank out of “whites-only” public water fountains, young men publicly burned their draft cards and thousands blockaded roads to keep pulp and paper companies out old growth forests.
The member-supported Council of Canadians has engaged in all sorts of civil disobedience, including sandbagging towns and provincial legislatures to point out how rising sea levels would affect them.
“It’s not an action to be taken lightly,’’ says Andrea Harden-Donahue, the Council’s Energy and Climate Justice campaigner. “We do believe that all other democratic means should be pursued first and continue to be pursued, even with a civil disobedience strategy.
“But we feel that it is justified to address climate change, especially given that the Harper government has refused to take action, and because of the urgency.”
Most lawmakers – and even most people -- don’t seem to think much of the tactic. Witness police actions against non-violent stunts such as teddy bear catapults at global summits, or citizen complaints of tied up traffic during protests and sit-ins. How many Canadians say that last year’s peaceful protestors at the Toronto G20 Summit should have just stayed home if they didn’t want to be tackled, cuffed with plastic cables and tossed into cages without charges?
“People from across the political spectrum love to praise civil disobedience-- as long as we're talking about past social movements,” observes US journalist Will Potter, author of Green Is the New Red: An Insider's Account of a Social Movement under Siege. “For instance, on the very same day that members of Congress were breaking ground for a new memorial honoring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his activism, a bill was passed labeling civil disobedience as ‘terrorism’ if it is done by animal rights and environmental activists.”
“Most people are divorced from the history of social change,” notes Greenpeace Canada’s climate and energy campaigner Mike Hudema, author of An Action a Day Keeps Global Capitalism Away. “From the eight-hour workday, to women's right to vote, to the end of slavery -- all of these involved good people willing to break the law.”
One much talked-about recent case of civil disobedience within the scientific community is that of NASA climatologist and Columbia University professor James Hansen who, along with others, was charged with obstructing police and impeding traffic in West Virginia, while protesting mountain-top coal mining.
Here he is on Letterman a couple of years ago, talking about his then just-published book, Storms of my Grandchildren. It's a great interview.
Hansen, who calls climate change “the great moral challenge of this century,’’ has been helping other activists who get into legal trouble, including six Greenpeace members tried in 2008 for vandalizing a coal power station’s smokestack. With his expert testimony, they convinced the court that, despite all the expensive havoc they wreaked, even greater damage – climate change – was being prevented from hurting people.
The decision shocked both government and industry: The activists were found not-guilty by reason of "lawful excuse” -- a judgement which opens the door for more climate justice civil disobedience.
“We do believe that the law, and actions taken within the law, are ultimately necessary to addressing the problem of climate change,’’ explains Andrew Gage, acting executive director of West Coast Environmental Law in Victoria, BC.
Tomorrow the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change begins in Bonn.
Wait for a lot of blather and political positioning, but not much commitment for change – or even a commitment to make a commitment for change from developed nations. Meanwhile, the poor nations who will take the brunt of climate change will just have to take it.
Me, I am glad I am getting on in years so I won’t have to see what’s coming. I always felt and, as it turns out, scientist Michael Mann sees it the same way, that, well, here's how he in an email: "Of all the early 70s distopian movies, Soylent Green was actually the most prophetic in terms of providing a vision for a worst case anthropogenic climate future..."
“I don’t think most people realize how little time we have left,’’ warns Lester Brown, founder of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute and author of the just-published World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse. “The cliff is not that far away.’’
But hey, the disaster folks will make a buck.
JUST A NOTE: In order to do this post, I spoke to many distinguished and committed scientists. I just want to thank those that I cited, as well as those I didn't, including Scott Mandia and Ray Weymann.
HEATING UIPDATE: Well, here's a surprise.
The UN climate talks re-opened in Bonn on Monday with developing countries increasingly resentful that money promised 18 months ago to help them adapt to climate change has not been made available.
New research by the World Resources Institute (WRI) shows that the world's 21 developed countries and the European commission have publicly announced pledges of $28bn in "fast-track" money after a commitment made in Copenhagen in 2009. While this is close to the $30bn promised for the 2010-2012 period, only around $12bn has actually been budgeted for by countries and as little as around 30% has been delivered in some cases.